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Harford stakes his claim at Charlton
Harford stakes his claim at Charlton
Saturday, 27th Oct 2007 11:35

Mick Harford strengthened his claim to be the new manager of QPR with an impressive 1-0 win at Charlton on Saturday.

It's not exactly what you'd call a match made in heaven. There's Flavio Briatore up in the directors' box surrounded by super models, girls who make a living out of wearing revealing underwear, well dressed tanned gentlemen in expensive suits and 300 completely useless English managers trying to catch his eye.

Then down on the touchline stands our coaching set up. Joe Dunbar, former boxing trainer, Warren Neill, former cab driver, and gruff northerner Mick Harford in overall caretaker charge.

QPR's game on Saturday followed Football Italiano in the television schedules which meant those of us who could neither face nor afford another £150 trip to the capital for an early kick off when it was on Sky got a direct comparison between what Briatore has and what you sense he wants.

As the highlights from Serie A drifted by and we counted down the seconds until Laura Esposto appeared again to tell us who's playing in their live Sunday game one smooth looking Italian manager after another flashed before our eyes. Then in the blink of an eye they were gone, and there in high definition glory was Big Mick*.

*In the absence of any tangible nick names football people will immediately be assigned an obligatory one to do with their size.

Harford to me always looks like he's just stepped away from a huge punch up to try and do you a deal on a lurcher. The look on his face and the calm yet scarily focussed way he talks always give me the impression that just off screen there's a bloke picking his teeth out of the dirt.

Can you see Flavio guiding his latest squeeze to the players lounge and saying "Darling, this is the manager of my football club. Big Mick"? Nah me neither. But then can you see a smooth Italian getting the results from this obviously limited group of players the way Harford is?

Buoyed by three matches without defeat Harford made a positive switch to his line up for the lunch time visit to the Valley. Rangers had barely threatened Preston at all on Tuesday night until Nygaard came on for Ainsworth so it made sense to start the Dane in this one. It was still a brave decision to go with two out and out strikers at one of the promotion favourites rather than the one up and one off system we've run with for the last couple of games.

Nygaard joined Vine up front with Ephraim starting wide left. Bolder and Leigertwood played in the middle of midfield with Rowlands working the right. The defence is probably Harford's greatest triumph since taking over and it was the increasingly familiar back five of Camp, Manciene, Cranie, Stewart and Barker who took to the field here on the back of two clean sheets in three unbeaten matches.

Charlton made wholesale changes after a poor midweek home defeat by Plymouth. Injuries to three left backs meant a debut for academy prospect Grant Basey. Lloyd Sam returned to the wing after a three game ban and Sam Sodje made a full debut at centre half. Danny Mills returned to right back instead of Yassin Moutaouakil. Darren Ambrose was dropped altogether after getting caught in traffic before the match, Svetoslav Todorov has picked up the latest in a long line of season ending knee injuries he's suffered during his career so that meant Izale McLeod and Theryy Racon were on the bench.

In the first 30 seconds Damion Stewart misjudged a long ball through the middle but it bounced up into Camp's arms - that was Stewart's first and last mistake of the day. Camp was stretched slightly more by Chinese midfielder Zheng Zhi when he broke the offside trap after three minutes. The former Derby keeper got down low and blocked the ball at Zhi's feet, then sprang back up to block the follow up away for a corner with his chest.

Rangers' first attack of the match after ten minutes yielded a very decent shout for a penalty. Martin Rowlands swung a corner into the near post and Damion Stewart got to it first. The big Jamaican headed powerfully for goal from eight yards out but the effort was blocked by the arm of Chris Iwelumo back helping out his defenders. The Rangers players and coaching staff appealed but referee Probert, a man with a long and chequered history when it comes to refereeing QPR, waved the protests away. Undoubtedly it was ball to hand but in that situation penalties are often given when players have their arms stuck out or up in the air attempting to make themselves big and execute a block. Certainly, with Iwelumo's hands right up above his head, Charlton could have had few complaints had it been awarded.

Unperturbed Ranagers came again and after a terrific ball from Rowlands down the right side sent Leigertwood in behind Basey Nygaard attacked the near post and bundled the ball a yard wide of the upright with help from Fortune and Sodje. It could easily have flashed into the bottom corner. As the half wore on Charlton came into the game more and more. Sam Sodje climbed high above Marc Nygaard and headed against the top of the cross bar from a corner by Andy Reid. Then five minutes later the centre of the QPR midfield was caught napping for the first time allowing Sam to feed Varney but Stewart got back with a desperate sliding tackle and the former Crewe man blazed his effort over the bar when he should have scored. Varney nearly turned provider in the next attack when he sent a low cross into the area but Iwelumo and Stewart both lost their footing and the ball was cleared away.

A couple of tame free kicks from Martin Rowlands failed to trouble Weaver, one going straight into the keeper's arms the other striking the top of the wall.

Iwelumo was unlucky not to give his side the lead on the half hour when he made a great run in from behind Cranie in the six yard box to meet a low cross from Varney with a diving header. The ball was always just behind the former Colchester man though and although he managed to arch his body into a seemingly impossible shape he could only direct the ball up and over the bar.

Iwelumo was certainly proving to be a handful but Stewart coped with him very well. He won his fair share of ball in the air against him but several times dropped off and allowed him a free flick on so he could just pick the ball up behind him - a rare example of some conscious thought from Stewart and part of an excellent all round display. On the two occasions Varney and Iwelumo did get completely free in the area they were both flagged offside, and they somehow managed to send the sitters well wide of the post anyway.

Ten minutes before the break Zheng Zhi cracked a low 20 yard effort which Lee Camp did well to palm away from the danger zone. Then Martin Cranie had his heart in his mouth when he ignored Camp's calls and tried to deal with Reid's cross himself, slicing the ball narrowly over his top corner. From the set piece Lee Camp seemed to be fouled and a melee ensued as Lee Probert waved play on - Rangers got the ball away and later in the game they were grateful for the referee waving play on a similar situation.

The first half came to a close without further incident and while Charlton had clearly had more of the ball and almost all of the chances Rangers had plenty to be positive about. Vine and particularly Nygaard were leading the line well, Bolder and Leigertwood were holding the midfield excellently and the two centre halves were both having excellent games. In addition some of the passing Rangers were doing, particularly involving Rowlands down the right, was fantastic to see and you sensed confidence was starting to course through the players' veins.

Rangers came out of the traps much faster than Charlton at the start of the second half. Pardew had removed his holding midfielder Semedo in favour of former R Jerome Thomas at half time no doubt intending to continue stretching their attacking play width ways and get at QPR's problem full back positions. As it turned out all the change achieved was to open up a huge amount of space between Charlton's midfield and defence and with Vine always keen to drop deep, receive possession and run at the defence he started to have a field day. The change lost Charlton the game.

Five minutes in one such run from Vine should have brought the opening goal for Rangers. After charging into the penalty area the Birmingham loanee was crudely chopped down by Fortune for a nailed on penalty which Lee Probert had no hesitation in awarding. The QPR players celebrated like they'd already scored which is always risky, and the high fives and hugs proved to be very premature when Rowlands stepped up and missed the kick.

In fairness to Rowlands he couldn't have picked his spot much better, right down low to the keeper's right, and certainly couldn't have struck the ball any sweeter. Against Norwich the luck was with him, against Charlton the shot cracked against the foot of the post and rebounded back out into play. Rowlands couldn't believe it, and was still cursing his luck ten minutes later. A break in play allowed Harford to put an arm round his winger and calm him down a little bit which was needed because he was clearly devastated by the mistake.

Incredibly Rangers managed to create, and miss, an even better chance than the penalty within ten minutes. Danny Mills dallied with the ball on the edge of his own area and was robbed by Leigertwood who then rounded the former England full back to face the goal, one on one, eight yards out. Missing the goal by a good two yards seemed to be a result of him over thinking where he wanted to place the ball, rather than just giving it a good smack. His overall performance deserved a goal - he was the outstanding central midfielder on the pitch once again.

Prior to that Marc Nygaard had just allowed a ball to slip away from him after he was played into space in front of goal by a nice piece of play by Rowan Vine. Damion Stewart was unlucky to be denied from a corner again as he met Martin Rowlands' low set piece with a skilful back flick that Weaver did well to get down and save. Weaver was also on hand with a sharp save down low to his left as Rowan Vine again tricked his way into the penalty area and hit a low shot.

Luke Varney had a similar chance to the one he'd hammered over in the first half, this time he kept his shot down but Camp saved well with both hands wide to his left but Rangers were right on top in every department, Charlton just couldn't cope with them. Vine was at the centre of everything and the R's looked like scoring every time they went forward. "We're going to score in a minute" the travelling faithful sang optimistically, and they weren't wrong.

Every team has ten minutes in a game, and they have to score in that ten minutes if they're to take the spoils. Rangers, it seemed, had had their ten minutes and didn't score. In fact, they had the thick end of twenty minutes total dominance and didn't score. It was starting to look like would have to settle for a point or prepare to be sucker punched.

We should have had more faith. With just under 20 minutes remaining the ball broke to Hogan Ephraim in the area but his initial effort was blocked. The West Ham youngster was alert enough to regather possession though and he fed the ball wide to Chris Barker to swing over a deep cross from the left.

Nicky Weaver arrived underneath the ball late and Nygaard was already off the ground looking for the header. The pair clashed and the ball dropped loose in the penalty area. Adam Bolder met it first, mishitting a half volley towards the far corner and after what seemed like an age it dropped into the bottom corner in front of the jubilant Rangers fans. Charlton appealed for a foul on Weaver but referee Probert said nothing and Bolder's first ever QPR goal was allowed to stand.

Looking at the replays it seemed to me to be one of those decisions that keepers nearly always get in their favour but probably shouldn't. Weaver arrived under the cross very late with little chance of getting there ahead of Nygaard, there was a coming together and Nygaard put his arms on him as he climbed but Probert could hardly blow for that one after letting the earlier one on Camp go and we do always say all we ask for from referees is consistency.

Inevitably as the final 15 minutes ticked by Rangers started to drop a little deeper and once or twice the defending on the edge of the box was a little more desperate and less composed than it had been. Pardew, not content with his game losing substitution at half time, removed their biggest attacking threat Iwelumo for Izale McLeod. The former MK Dons man had a shot well blocked by Cranie but was pretty ineffective apart from that and in the last ten minutes Charlton swung three free kicks into the six yard box only for nobody to attack them - Iwelumo would surely have stuck his nut on at least one of them. One effort that went all the way through from Lloyd Sam was palmed away by Camp and that was as close as they came.

Sam was booked for hacking down Ephraim and Reid was also carded for speaking out of turn to a linesman as QPR skilfully ran the clock down with good work from Nygaard and Vine in the corner. Overall though Mr Probert did very well for a change and contributed to an entertaining game by allowing the play to flow.

The final whistle was greeted with great celebrations on and off the pitch as the fans struggled to recognise this QPR team from the one that lost 5-1 at Charlton's fellow promotion chasers West Brom on television a month ago and the players reacted to a job very well done.

This was a thoroughly deserved win that could have been three or four times more convincing had QPR taken some of the gilt edged chances they created while dominating the second half. It's so hard to pick a star man with five or six outstanding candidates from a fantastic all round team display. Rowan Vine and Marc Nygaard played so well together. Vine caused all sorts of problems running at the defenders from deep and bringing his team mates into play with intelligent passing., Nygaard gave the complete target man's display with an excellent first touch, good range of passing and high percentage of headers won.

In midfield Leigertwood was superb and Bolder had his best game of the season. At the back Cranie was class again and Damion Sewart had, in my opinion, his finest game as a QPR player. Nothing was going past the pair of them either on the deck or in the air - calm, composed and classy throughout.

Harford has put the ball firmly in Briatore's court now, and he was due to meet with the board after this game to discuss where they go from here. Personally I'm torn. Harford has done great things since taking over. We now have a settled, well drilled and classy looking back four that is not afraid to play the ball out from the back. By adding Rowan Vine to the attack we have also ended the situation where two strikers just stood way down the pitch, accessible only by knocking a long ball up to them. Vine likes to drop deep and receive a short pass from the midfield - this is encouraging a better standard of play all round.

The results are great, the defending is fantastic, the players seem to get on with him - he looks good for a permanent contract.

However. Just how much of this current upturn can be attributed to 'new manager bounce' is unclear. This time last year we won at Cardiff on Sky as part of John Gregory's honeymoon period. We then went and lost two home games without scoring against Coventry and Wolves and with the Sky Blues and Hull City in town next week we can ill afford to do that again. How many times have we seen a caretaker manager given the job on the back of results during his 'bounce' only for things to quickly return to normal within weeks? Rob Kelly at Leicester one of many that springs to mind.

Harford's record in overall charge of Rotherham was very poor and the fact the players like him doesn't cut much ice with me. It's these players and their performances that have us in this position in the first place. They should be grateful they're still here, accept who they're given as manager and do their job more professionally than they have done until the last four games. Still as a friend of mine pointed out last week with the transfer windows now in operation the players hold all the cards, if they don't like the new man and don't play for him you're stuck with them until January and we've already given the rest of the league a six point head start. The argument for "if it isn't broken don't try and fix it" continues to gather pace.

It's a tough decision, and if we are going to be spending big money in January it's a big one. Luckily Harford has taken the pressure off by picking up results but I'm not sure we can keep him hanging on like this forever. It's a tough decision. I'm so glad it's not me that has to make it.

Charlton: Weaver 6; Mills 6, Basey 7, Sodje 7, Fortune 6; Sam 7 (Racon 85, -), Semedo 6 (J Thomas 46, 5), Zheng 7, Reid 7; Varney 6, Iwelumo 6 (McLeod 69, 5)
Subs not used: Randolph, Bougherra.
Booked: Sam 81 (foul), Reid 87 (dissent)

QPR: Camp 7; Mancienne 7, Barker 7, Stewart 8, Cranie 8; Rowlands 7, Bolder 7, Leigertwood 8, Ephraim 7, Nygaard 8, Vine 8
Subs not used: Cole, Bignot, Ainsworth, Sahar, Moore.
Goals: Bolder 72 (assisted Nygaard)

QPR Star Man - Damion Stewart 8 - I was tempted to not give this award this week because there were five or six candidates for it but I'll single out Damion for some extra praise. I thought this was his best ever game for the club, a complete centre half display. Very unlucky not to score. Vine, Nygaard, Leigertwood and Cranie were all superb as well.

Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire) 7 - Very good performance from him for a change. Lots of good advantage rule played allowing the game to flow, kept the cards in his pocket for as long as possible and showed plenty of common sense. Allowed challenges on both goalkeepers to go unpunished, QPR took better advantage of theirs of course, so consistency there. Few dodgy decisions against us early on I thought but all in all quite impressive. I'll have to have a lie down.

Attendance: 23,671 (2000 QPR fans approximately) The home fans came across as quiet and disgruntled with almost all of the noise came from a boisterous away following behind the goal.

Photo: Action Images

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